Green Left Weekly

Sunday, March 6, 2011
Kerryn Williams

Mining company BHP Billiton’s whopping $10.5 billion profit for the second half of 2010 highlights the shameless greed of those making a fortune out of Australia’s valuable resources.

Remember the tantrum thrown by BHP, Rio Tinto and Xstrata less than a year ago after then-PM Kevin Rudd proposed the Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT)?

The RSPT wasn’t a radical proposal. Part of the revenue from the modest 40% tax would have been returned to the corporate sector, helping to fund a cut in the already low corporate tax rate and various subsidies to mining. 

But if we believed the scare campaign by the mining giants, the RSPT was going to cripple the mining industry, and force these poor companies to take their capital and invest it elsewhere, at the expense of Australian jobs.

Now BHP is on track to break an Australian record. Its profit for this financial year will likely be more than $20 billion. Rio Tinto and Xstrata have also announced huge profits.

The mining companies’ multi-million-dollar advertising campaign against the RSPT was one big con job.

After the ALP machine ditched Rudd and installed Julia Gillard as PM, Gillard dropped the RSPT and gave the big mining companies a better deal.

Recent Treasury estimates indicate the watered down Minerals Resource Rent Tax (MRRT), which will reduce the RSPT’s 40% tax to just 30%, will bring in well under half the revenue.

The original tax was supposed to raise about $99 billion starting from the 2012-13 financial year until 2020-21. But it now looks like this figure will be only $38.5 billion.

That’s $60.5 billion that could have been spent on health care, education or the shift to renewable energy.

Greens leader Bob Brown has called for the original 40% tax to be restored. But Gillard insisted the MRRT would not be renegotiated, telling media on February 16: “We will deliver through the Australian parliament that tax as I agreed it with Australia’s biggest mining companies.”

Even the paltry corporate tax rate is to high for the corporate elite.

The February 28 Sydney Morning Herald said tax department research revealed an higher gap between expected and collected corporate tax revenue, which taxation commissioner Michael D’Ascenzo suggested could be attributed to the mining sector.

This is nothing new; creative tax avoidance is a part of Australian corporate culture.

The big corporations are always trying to convince us that high profits are good for everyone. The argument goes that the more they make, the more they’ll share around. But as the mining giants have shown, the more they make, the more they line their pockets.

It’s true that some mining workers earn relatively high wages. But these wages, often for dangerous and difficult work, are peanuts compared to mining super-profits.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions pointed out in June 2010 that over the last decade, mining profits grew by 530%. This was more than eight times the rate of increase in mining workers’ wages. The recent hike in profits would make the gap even larger.

We can also forget any idea that that the mining giants might voluntarily raise their contribution to social spending. The corporate elite’s response to the recent floods was indicative.

Graham Bradley, president of the Business Council of Australia (which represents the CEOs of Australia’s 100 biggest companies), told ABC Radio on February 14 that the government should consider cutting disability pensions and foreign aid to fund flood reconstruction in the eastern states.

The massive super-profits in the hands of the already filthy rich are especially sickening when you consider how Australia’s natural resources could be put to the common good.

Just half of BHP’s expected $20 billion annual profit over a decade would be enough to bring the level of Indigenous health, education and housing in line with the rest of the population. BHP would surely manage with the remaining $10 billion a year!

But to carry out such a measure, the government would actually have to take on the mining giants.

If these companies cry poor, they should be made to open their books. If they threaten to take their operations offshore, the government should offer the mining companies a simple choice: continue to operate here and make substantial profits while paying a meaningful tax, or the mining sector will be placed in public hands.

But clearly this isn’t going to happen — under an ALP or a Coalition government.

The only real solution to the rampant greed of the mining giants is nationalisation of the mining sector. Bringing this industry — Australia’s most profitable sector — under public control would raise huge funds that could be put towards vital projects such as the shift to renewable energy.

Destructive, dangerous and unsustainable mining could be phased out and workers retrained in other areas.

Placing mining in public hands would require a determined and large-scale struggle by mining workers and the community.

As we move closer each day to major climate catastrophe, and the Gillard government wastes precious time with false solutions like the carbon tax, such a move becomes increasingly necessary.